On April 26, 1986, a hellish white glow bejeweled a small, little-known town in central Ukraine, now notoriously recognized by the international community as Chernobyl. During the early morning hours of the twenty-sixth, operators had been running an ill-conceived experiment on reactor unit number four, during which a spike in the operating level of the core caused a catastrophic explosion. The resulting eruption of radionuclides, both from the initial explosion and from the subsequent fires, turned much of the Ukrainian countryside into a radioactive wasteland. Furthermore, prevailing winds blew radioactive clouds of particles over a large swath of Europe, irradiating many countries and endangering the overall food supply of the entire continent. Examining both short-term hazards, and long-term effects, many in the scientific community have proclaimed Chernobyl the worst environmental disaster ever (Read 66-73). It is the purpose of this paper to fully investigate every aspect of this colossal crisis. How bad was the accident? What caused it and how was it fixed? Finally, and most importantly, can humanity learn from its mistakes and prevent further such mishaps? The Accident
Situated 65 miles north of Kiev in Ukraine next to the small town of Pripyat, the Chernobyl power station included four reactors, each with an estimated output of a thousand megawatts. Unbeknownst to the nearby residents, a dangerous experiment was conducted on reactor unit four during the early morning of April 26, 1986. Unfortunately, the Chernobyl operators breached numerous safety protocols in order to continue with their endeavor that hinted at disaster from the very beginning (Martin 16-19). At approximately 1:23 AM on April 26, operators within the Chernobyl complex heard numerous thuds emanating from deep inside the reactor building. These ominous sounds were shortly followed by a horrifically sickening crash and an explosion which ripped through the reactor complex and buckled the meter thick concrete walls of the containment building. Emergency power units kicked on, revealing a dimly lit control room sparsely inhabited by frantic plant operators. Though nobody had a clear idea of the extent of the situation, foremost on everyone s mind was preventing a core meltdown. Numb with horror, Alexander Akimov, in command of the night reactor shift, watched as his corridors filled with dust and smoke, trapping men and machine in a furious inferno (Read 64-66). Those looking at the complex from the outside noticed a strange ghastly white glow, as did those looking down into the empty crater where the reactor core lay completely fragmented. Sparks eerily crisscrossed the morning air as electrical systems short-circuited, while operators--realizing for the first time the severity of the accident--frantically attempted to gain control over the situation. Burst pipes allowed superheated steam to escape from many unpredictable points, scalding many workers who were attempting to fight the numerous graphite and electrical fires now raging like an uncontrollable beast throughout the building. Some of these workers stumbled about the plant, blisters covering every exposed patch of skin on their bodies, vainly trying to reach the apparent safety of the outdoors (Read 66-73). It was determined afterward that thirty-two firefighters and plant operators had been killed in the first few days of the Chernobyl tragedy. Worse yet, debris from the shattered reactor core, coupled with the burning graphite piles, released several times the amount of radiation discharged when the United States dropped both atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ("The Causes of the Accident and Its Progress" 1-2). Because of the general lack of radiation monitoring equipment, the Soviet government learned the true extent of the accident only after Swedish personnel working at nuclear power plants in Sweden began to notice elevated levels of...
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